At its recent monthly meetings, the Fresno County Civic Learning Partnership (CLP) addressed “Racial Conflict and Civics Education.”
CLP head John Minkler assigned this topic to me. Inspired by the State Courts’ and Public Schools’ joint California Task Force on K-12 Civic Learning to improve civics education, the CLP assists schools with civic initiatives, resources and student projects.
Opening the discussion, I described how the young French aristocrat, Lafayette, enamored of the Declaration of Independence and American ideals, left his pregnant wife and France against the orders of the king to find Washington and become a soldier in the American army.
He wrote to his wife on the boat to America: “The happiness of America is intimately connected with the happiness of all mankind; she is destined to become the safe and venerable asylum of virtue, of honesty, of tolerance and of peaceful liberty.”
I then contrasted this with black novelist Richard Wright’s comment in the 1940s: “Again I say that each and every Negro, during the last 300 years, possesses from that heritage a greater burden of hate for America than they themselves know. Perhaps it is well that Negroes try to be as unintellectual as possible, for if they ever started really thinking about what happened to them they’d go wild.
“And perhaps that is the secret of whites who want to believe that Negroes really have no memory, for if they thought Negroes remembered, they would start to shoot them all in sheer self-defense.”
I then quoted from President Obama’s Farewell Address: “Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift that our Founders gave us … Our progress has been uneven… Social attitudes oftentimes take generations to change… But the long sweep of America has been defined by a... constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all and not just some.”
I suggested that curriculum include: the 3/5 clause debate at the 1787 Constitutional Convention over counting slaves for Congressional representation; historical black figures; the Civil War era; the post-bellum practice of southern states to re-enslave blacks through job discrimination, arrest for vagrancy, and forced hard labor; Supreme Court cases on segregation; and President Obama’s Farewell Address.
I noted that Franklin wanted to outlaw slavery at the convention, but no one would touch it. As Thomas Jefferson later remarked, addressing slavery was like holding a wolf by the ear – they couldn’t hang on and couldn’t let go, but holding together a new-sprung nation in the face of hostility of European monarchies was paramount.
I noted the brutal sacrifices of Union soldiers at battles like Cold Harbor. I asked why fulfillment of the extraordinary Constitutional Amendments and Civil Rights laws of the 1860s remains so long delayed. I noted past racial injustice was not limited to blacks.
A remarkably candid discussion of black community concerns followed. It continued at the next CLP meeting, now with more administrators, teachers, attorneys and members of the black and Hispanic communities attending. We discussed a curriculum that would honor separate cultures but stress what unites us, not what divides us.
Minkler emphasized our original National Motto, E Pluribus Unum – out of many one.”
But past bureaucratic inertia looms. It has been over 60 years since Brown v. Board of Education, yet, far too many minorities remain mired in a cultural legacy of segregation, poverty, poor schools, drugs and gangs.
In the San Francisco Unified School district, four out of five blacks failed the state’s reading test. At the Charles Drew Prep Academy in the Bayview neighborhood, nine out of 10 black students failed math and reading tests. Statewide, only 31 percent passed the reading test. The Urban Institute recently documented that blacks can still not be shown a home or apartment to buy or rent.
Discrimination can bar blacks from jobs like plumbing or carpeting that would take them into unwelcoming white homes.
To overcome inertia on this painful subject, all of us, as a community and nation, should unflinchingly explain ourselves to each other. And then for ourselves and our youth, strive to understand, unify around and realize America’s founding ideals. Send an e-mail if you favor an open community discussion.
Daniel O. Jamison is an attorney with Dowling Aaron Incorporated. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.